This is a place to capture some thoughts I have had from time to time about rebuilding a sailboat.
Simple Yet Elegant
It has occurred to me that one of the real crimes of production boat building (and I suspect a fair amount of custom boat building as well) is there appears little to no thought about the disassembly of interior cabinetry to effect future repairs to the boat or her components. It requires a lot of thought to figure out how to design and construct things so they can be taken apart without destroying the boat in the process. Much of the way the Far Reach was originally built prevented removal of furniture to access or repair key components without destroying the interior in the process. One thing was built on top of another. Little thought appeared to have been given to the future. Everything in a boat will eventually need to be repaired or replaced--water tanks, fuel tanks, holding tanks, grounding straps, chain plates, plumbing, wiring, etc. Though in some places I epoxy tabbed in furniture panels to the hull I tried to leave enough room that I could saws-all the part off at the bottom of the tab without demolishing the furniture itself. It can be removed intact and reinstalled later. I had to think about the cleats that support furniture components. I chose not to glue both side of the cleat to the components but only one side (with screws) and then only screw the other side. Some might argue that it won't be as strong but with the tabbing in place and the general strength of the hull, deck, and bulkheads I believe it will be more than strong enough. There may be a little more wood squeaking in rough weather but I suppose there has to be some trade offs. So far there is nothing that can't be removed that would necessitate destroying any of the interior.
There is a real art to making something simple yet elegant at the same time. I am not suggesting I have achieved this lofty goal as I am still very much an amateur, but I continue to work towards that vision. A friend passed along a bunch of photos of the interior of the Pardey's Taleisin. With Larry Pardey's book "Classic Boat Construction" along side I poured over the photos. With the experience I have gained working on the Far Reach, and the brain-lock I have often endured trying to figure out how to approach each project, I am awed by the simple elegance they achieved. All the components are so perfectly worked out. They not only to fit ergonomically perfect, they are also easily constructed and repaired. Larry Pardey is truly a master craftsman. Some of their ideas will not work inside the Far Reach due to bulkhead location, deck layout, cockpit foot well depth, etc. But, the philosophy behind their layout and construction methodology continues to shape my thinking about how to build things . . . and not just boats. Simple yet elegant.
The Unknown Unknowns: Another Perspective
This is a website about rebuilding a sailboat, not politics.But, bear with me . . . .
Back in 2002, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld uttered his famous quote about the “known knowns.” The pundits and the comedians had a grand time with it. “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”
Now don’t get all worked up.As I said, this is not about politics. To the uninitiated the above statement sounds convoluted and, perhaps, even bizarre.But military planners understood exactly what he was saying and of course having spent many years as a planner in the Marine Corps I intuitively understand the difficulty of getting one’s arms around difficult operations.Though I am not suggesting the administration planned either wisely or unwisely, it was, and remains, a very valuable tool, among many others, to initiate planning for complex operations.These word categories are often used to capture all we know and don’t know about a particular situation to start forming options that serve as the basis for operational design; what we know we know; what we know we don’t know; and what we don’t know that we don’t know. Sounds crazy doesn’t it.But it works as a tool to start the planning process.
So what does this have to do with boat building?I submit it captures perfectly the essence of boat building (or rebuilding) especially when it is being undertaken by an inexperienced builder.The first two categories are kind of common sense and easy to get your arms around—what do we know we know and what do we know we don’t know.I deal with this every day on the Far Reach.Projects that fall into these two categories are generally easy to sort out—review and assess your previous experience, conduct research, ask questions, make a plan, and execute.But, the last category, we don’t know what we don’t know (the unknown unknowns), is the real danger, the 800 lb gorilla if you will.I always hated this phrase as a military planner and would tell my action officers that when we say “we don’t know what we don’t know” it essentially means we haven’t done our homework, we aren’t professional or competent enough to understand what we are doing, that we are stumbling forward blindly, and it’s unacceptable. We can accept known unknowns (you never have perfect information) but not unkown unkowns.We simply must know all the essential questions that must be considered, even if we can’t determine all the answers.As the historian Jay Luvas once said, “You can’t do anything about your 50 year old body, but there is no excuse for not having a 5000 year old mind.”
Well, a few days ago during a morning workout I was musing about where I was with the rebuild of the Far Reach.I found myself lamenting some of the difficulties I was having at the moment and how much there was still left to do.It then occurred to me how much I had accomplished so far.As I thought back over some of the projects I began to wonder if I would do it again.I was forced to admit that it has been more work than I had anticipated (sometimes it seems as though it will never end).For the inexperienced, ripping out the fiberglass headliner, glassing in the propeller aperture, tearing off the toe-rail and glassing the hull deck joint together, and gutting the interior and designing and installing a new interior sound simple when you say them.But actually completing them is anything but simple.It occurred to me that when I first picked up that wrecking bar and we began gutting the boat I simply did not really understand how big a project this was (my 50 year old mind was on vacation and a 5000 year old mind was nowhere to be found).And, for those without the resolve of a junk-yard dog, running into obstacles like these could be a show stopper.It is a well know fact that there are countless half-completed boat projects laying abandoned in back yards across the country because the owners underestimated the amount of resources and time required, got overwhelmed, and gave up.God bless ‘em for trying.
But, my thinking about the unkown unkowns has changed a little since my days as a military planner.Maybe, just maybe, if one is truly determined, not knowing how difficult and time consuming a project really is, might just be a blessing in disguise.In other words, if we knew how hard it would be, we would never start.But then, of course, if it was never started, it could not be completed.And where would we be then?Maybe we would consider ourselves fortunate . . . but then again, maybe we would be just another forlorn sailor dreaming about what could have been . . . watching our dreams slip away with the passing of time like so much sand running through our fingers.And so I have reconsidered.Maybe a few unknown unknowns are essential to picking up that wrecking bar . . . .
Wouldn't it be cheaper in the long run to buy a new boat than gut and restore a 30 year old boat . . . and wouldn't you be sailing a lot sooner with a new boat?
I have been asked these questions many times. But, before I answer, I will reiterate the obvious--everyone's situation is different.There is no best way . . . only the way that works for each person.But if you are willing to do the work yourself, especially on an older "classic plastic," it is going to cost far less than what a new off-shore boat will cost.A new boat of similar quality and size to our Cape Dory 36 and outfitted, per the current "standard" for long range sailing would probably cost close to $350,000, if not more. For most people, including us, a boat like that would require a significant loan which would mean big monthly payments and a steady job to pay for it . . . so there could be no extended time off to go sailing. Some people sell or rent their home to pay for such a boat.But, what if you just want to sail seasonally or make an occasional long range passage?Must it be an all-or-nothing undertaking?We like options and thus we built a plan that allows us fiscal and psychological flexibility.Though she was in rough shape when we bought her, we paid far below the used market value for the then 20 year old Far Reach . . . and she is now paid off. One could easily start with a boat that cost considerably less than the Far Reach and spend even less.Not including the purchase price of the boat, we estimate the total cost of the restoration and refit, not including the boat, will be about 10-15 percent of the cost of a new boat. How is that possible?
First, we intend to keep the boat simple.The focus is on sailing and not the equipment.We do not plan to equip the boat with a new engine, water-maker, auto-pilot, chart-plotter, inverter, 800 amp hour battery bank, radar, inflatable with outboard engine, electric windlass, roller furler, diesel generator, wind generator, new winches, the latest HF radio with email, a laptop, a life raft, etc. Just these items alone can run about $50,000 which does not cover the cost for installation.Nor does it include all the smaller glittery gadgets the marine industry is producing and advertising as must have equipment.Credit cards make buying new equipment very tempting.Every sailing publication seems determined to convince the reader that one must have all this equipment to go sailing. This is just not true. Perhaps this phenomena is simply a reflection of the incestuous relationship between sailing magazines seeking revenues and marine advertisers trying to sell their products.Sure, they are all just trying to make a living, but we don't have to help them.We reuse/refurbish as much of the equipment that came with our boat as possible.When we determine there is a piece of equipment we need that we don't have we try to find it used.We have had good luck with eBay and marine consignment shops, no junk thank you.
Second, the Far Reach is in our backyard and not in a boatyard. So there is no monthly boatyard payment depleting our restoration/refit funds.
Third, we are doing all the work ourselves. If we paid a boat yard to do the work, even excluding the more complex modifications, like the bowsprit or the hull-deck joint, we could easily spend another $50K-$100K. This is where I think the argument for a new boat can make sense.Cost of used boat + must have equipment + pay a boatyard to do the restoration and installation of equipment = the cost of a new boat. Even if we could pay someone else to do the work we would neither know a thing about how our boat is put together nor have the skills to repair her. We would be stuck like so many sailors having to rely on the expertise of highly paid specialists to make very costly repairs to our boat which would further deplete the funds we need for sailing . . . or for other things in life. It's a vicious cycle that we intend to avoid.
Fourth, in my opinion, most production boats, new or used, are not really set up for long range sailing. Even the Cape Dory/Robinhood 36, marketed as a "cruising boat," has very little storage room. Just about any boat out there would need to be modified to fit our needs.On the Far Reach, like most contemporary designed boats, the bilge was filled with a huge fuel tank, no extra storage there. The settees, the quarter-berth, and the V-berth all had large water tanks underneath so there was practically no storage available there either. The space under the cockpit was filled with a large diesel engine, no extra storage there. Where would our supplies go--food, cookware, clothing, linens, spare parts, sails, tools, ground tackle, extra line, sun awnings, the sailing rig for our hard dinghy, cooking fuel, books for the adults, school books for the kids, navigation books, a sea anchor, tools, cans of varnish, paint, books, foul weather gear, snorkeling gear, medical supplies, etc? If we jammed it into the little storage space the boat had we would either have to dump everything out of a locker to get to the item we needed or be tripping all over it if we couldn't find a place to stow it. That would not be fun.It would not do. Sailing is often strenuous and challenging, sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but it should not be a hassle.Other than the V-berth and one quarter-berth there weren't any permanent berths for the kids. They need their own space. A well made older used boat was the best choice . . . if we did the work ourselves.
The old saying, "How much does a boat cost?How much do you have?" comes to mind. If we had more money perhaps we would do it differently. If we had less money, we would certainly not do some of the things we are doing. Each sailor has to choose their own path based on their personal situation, need for comfort, refit skills, and willingness to take risk.
Last, the plan we are following does mean it will take longer for us to get out sailing. But, two or three years to gut and rebuild a boat that better meets our needs does not seem like such a long time to me. I am struck by the need for instant gratification required by so many people in today's world. "Don't wait . . . buy it now . . . have it all . . . pay later." This is a slippery slope. There was a time, not so long ago, when people built or repaired what they needed. But it does require patience and hard work. Undertaking a project like ours is not for the fickle or feint hearted and yes, it has "scared the wits" out of us on occasion. But it has also been incredibly rewarding. When we finish the boat she will be uniquely ours.She will have the features we desire. She will be stronger. She will be a better sailing boat.We will know her inside and out. We will have the skills to fix everything on her. We will be as self-sufficient as possible and we find that thought reassuring. It's also a great teaching point for our children . . . if you have the desire there is much you can do yourself, which opens doors that might otherwise remain closed. In the meantime, we sail our dinghy . . . we camp . . . we hike . . . we enjoy what we have and look forward to the future.